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Immigration Specialist Pleads Amendments To New INS Processing Procedure

CelebrityAccess first reported on April 30 that immigration specialist Ron Zeelens of RazCo Visas was informed by an Information Officer at the Vermont Service Center of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), that effective June 1, the adjudication of "O" and "P" petitions would take anywhere between 60 and 90 days, while it is currently taking this Center less than 21 days to handle petitions for the entertainment industry.

He was also advised that petitions requiring expedited handling (within 15 days) would also require a premium fee of $1,000 in addition to the filing fees.

Two months later, Zeelens sent the following letter to INS authorities, record company presidents and both senators from California, New Jersey and New York about his concerns regarding the new procedure:

I am writing you to express my grave concern with the new processing procedure in which:

* the Service will no longer process "O" and "P" petitions within a reasonable period
* that 15 calendar days for premium processing is sometimes too long;
* that the premium fee should be per group and not per petition; and
* that there is the possibility of foreign countries retaliating, which will have an adverse effect on the American music industry.

For over twenty years my company has represented many prestigious foreign entertainers coming to the United States. During my career I've been the recipient of numerous Gold and Platinum disks, as well as having my biographical information included in the first edition of The Marquis Who's Who in Entertainment.Generally speaking, artists and groups travel to and within the United States to support new CDs released commercially in the United States. Most concert tours lose money or break even at best. If the artists are signed to a "major" record company, the shortfall in money will most likely be covered by "tour support," which is money advanced to the artist by the record company as a recoupable loan against future royalties from record sales.

While Sony, Universal, WEA, EMI and BMG are able to increase their promotional and touring budgets, it is the smaller, independent record companies and their artists, as well as many artists without recording contracts that will be hurt. The thousands of dollars that have been set aside for advertising and promotion, or for that matter, to allow the artist to improve the show's quality by bringing additional essential support personnel, or to increase the number of nights per week that the group has a hotel room, will now be spent in a less-productive manner.

Yes, the dot.coms of the world want and need premium processing to expedite the hiring of foreign executives, but record companies are not employers, and the music touring industry does not have 90+ days of advance knowledge as to what the public wants to hear and see and who is available to fulfill that need. It is a business of quick response to opportunities. And, as I mentioned before, the same is true in reverse. If, all of a sudden, it becomes either exceedingly difficult or prohibitively expensive for American musicians to quickly accept offers of employment overseas, the careers of many American entertainers will be adversely affected.

Ever since petitions for entertainers have been processed at Regional Adjudication Centers, the Vermont Service Center has usually been able to adjudicate "O" and "P" petitions within 14 days and the Western Service Center had a special unit to expedite petitions for entertainers.

While Texas and Nebraska probably did not receive as many entertainment-related petitions, those offices were also able to process petitions within a time period that the industry was able to work within. It is currently taking Vermont more than 60 days to process an "H-1B" nonimmigrant petition. It is my understanding that the range is more likely 75-90 days.

If you include the several days or more needed to obtain an advisory letter from the various unions, as required by INS regulations, plus a week or more for a consulate to issue a visa, you are talking over 100 days!!!

With this scenario, many foreign entertainers will be unable to tour; booking agents and concert promoters will be unable to negotiate contracts for these entertainers due to not knowing 100 days in advance if or when a petition will be approved, buyers of talent will be unwilling to hold their venue for 100 days, orchestras and ballet companies will be unable to confirm 100% of their personnel (substitution of essential support personnel is not permitted under current INS regulations) and record companies will be unable to promote and market their new record releases by these artists.

By definition, booking agencies are not employers (they are actually employed by the entertainers to seek employment for them) and they will most likely not be willing to risk advancing thousands of dollars to each of their foreign clients. Also, if an entertainer is required to pay the premium fee up front, the respective unions may interpret this as a "pay to play" approach, as well as it creating a two-tiered system of the "haves" and the "have nots." And all the "haves" started out as "have nots," so this would impact the development of new talent.

Most North American tours by foreign entertainers include Canada and sometimes Mexico. The length of time it will take to adjudicate "O" and "P" petitions will clearly have a direct impact on including work in those countries. If their visa has expired and a petition to extend their temporary stay is pending for 60 or more days, the artist will not be able to cross either border. It will be impossible for itineraries to be amended and/or extended after the artists' tour has begun — which is often based on public demand.

Secondly, there are two annual music conferences, CMJ in New York City and SXSW in Austin, Texas. They are prestigious and important yearly showcases for both domestic and foreign talent. Based on my lengthy experience with both conferences, it will be virtually impossible for either conference to confirm appearances by foreign artists if they have to do so 100+ days in advance, thereby seriously and adversely affecting the two most important US music industry conferences. Therefore, I would urge that the adjudication of petitions be within 30 calender days.

For the past several years the various Centers have, on a case by case basis, proven that petitions can be expedited within three business days or less. I do not believe that 15 calendar days should be considered an expedite. Most expedites are due to an illness in the group or production, or to a television program wanting a particular artist whose song is gaining popularity (and not someone whose song was popular two weeks ago). I would urge for premium processing be within a 3-5 business day period.

Per the INS regulations, petitions for "P" performers and "P" essential support personnel must be filed separately, as well as an "O-1" artist, his/her "O-2" accompanying performers and their "O-2" essential support personnel. In other words, the Service is asking for upwards of $3,000 in premium filing fees. Again, the dot.coms of the world do not file multiple petitions for their individual executives, but the entertainment industry is often required to. Therefore, I would urge that the $1,000 premium filing fee be per artist/group and not petition.

In 1991 when the Service was about to implement the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1992, various countries, Holland and France in particular, were incensed at the notion of a cap being put on the number of visas issued per year. Their Ministries of Culture were considering ways to retaliate against American artists; a cultural war was possible. I am afraid 10 years later, that if the interim rule becomes permanent in its present form, that a lot of countries will make it too difficult for American artists to tour overseas. I do believe more American entertainers tour internationally each year than foreign entertainers perform in the US, so the potential adverse effect on the income of American entertainers is potentially significant.

In conclusion, regular processing time should be amended to afford the music industry (which is among America's most popular and visible cultural exports) to be better able to properly promote and market their product. By subjecting the music industry to such extreme new costs as $1,000 per petition or otherwise waiting 100 days, it will not only jeopardize careers and jobs in the United States, but may also have an adverse effect on the many independent companies that the industry depends on for so many vital services. will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at "The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards 2001," to air Aug. 28 on UPN, 8-10 p.m. ET/PT.

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